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Nonprofit Berkshire Business Incubator Receives Cash Infusion

Josh Landes
Entrepreneur Michelle Wiley pitches her business plan for "Giggles", a musical education program, to attendees of Lever's 2018 Demo Day.

A North Adams, Massachusetts-based business incubator announced a $450,000 infusion from state and local sources Thursday.

Jeffrey Thomas is the executive director of Lever, a nonprofit organization intent on lifting the local economy by investing in fledgling businesses.

“We launch startups," Thomas told WAMC. "We focus on startups that are going to have the potential to grow quickly and create a lot of jobs.”

Lever originated at Williams College, offering students programming around entrepreneurship. But in 2014, it stepped off the campus and into the heart of northern Berkshire County.

“A Williams alumnus, Jack Wadsworth, reached out to me to ask if I had any interest in launching an incubator here in North Adams," said Thomas.

Lever’s board features members from San Francisco and Burlington, but most of them are local.

“Folks from investment banking and private equity, venture capital," Thomas told WAMC. "We have some folks representing the academic organizations, President Jamie Birge from MCLA. We also have Jim Mahon from the Williams Economics Department.”

Thomas says Lever’s business portfolio is wide-ranging.

“Manufacturing and health are two sectors that we care a lot about, but we also have companies in the cybersecurity space and local food space," he said. "Marty’s Local is really helping build the local food economy here. We work with Whole Life Pets out of Pittsfield. They’re making premium pet treats using single ingredients that are source identified.”

Laurie Thomsen is a board member of Lever, which announced almost half a million dollars in funding to be invested in the group over the next three years Thursday at Greylock Works in North Adams.

“That funding has come from MassLife Sciences, Mass Technology collaborative, Williams College, and Berkshire Bank," said Thomsen.

$150,000 of that will go to a series of challenges to life science and advanced manufacturing companies.

“These are challenge programs that are really kind of focused on early stage startups. So the entrepreneurs that we’re working with generally have a — are really just at the concept stage or potentially have an MVP, a minimal viable product that they’re bringing out to their customers," said Brent Filson, the director of programs and operations at Lever. “The purpose really of the challenge is to accelerate their progress with their business model, and then have them — get them exposed to a very select group of mentors in the area who can provide a lot of value to them.”

After the mentorship programs, the startups compete to deliver the soundest pitch for their respective companies, vying for a $25,000 reward — along with four months of free use of Lever’s facilities at its North Adams headquarters.

“The other $300,000 will be for Lever to continue to work with entrepreneurs, mentor them, fund its operation, host other challenges potentially," Thomsen told WAMC.

Lever also holds challenges for businesses in the arts. Thomsen explains what they’re looking for in the challenges: “Having the most viable business plan for a scalable business, so that’s going to take into consideration the person running it, what’s the market opportunity, does their plan seem feasible, is it an unmet need that really could be taken to scale.”

Thomas says Lever is eager to work with Pittsfield’s Berkshire Innovation Center, which was relaunched with state money earlier this year. He sees the businesses at Lever as prime candidates for users of the yet-unbuilt center.

“We know that the BIC team is very, very focused right now on getting the center built and staffed and equipped," he told WAMC. "So we’re excited to be able to begin the programming around the BIC that’s going to make sure that when the doors open, it’ll be full of activity.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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